5 Bizarre Historical Beliefs About Diets
The idea of a healthy, balanced diet seems pretty fixed in the modern world, but it's actually changing all the time. Medical opinion about the real danger to health has shifted recently from fats to sugar, and new discoveries are constantly being made about potential supplements. What seemed gospel last year may be complete nonsense tomorrow. If it makes you feel better, though, the human race has had some spectacularly strange ideas about diet and health over the centuries, from fearing salads as deadly to believing women needed to eat boiled meat so their brains wouldn't die. Yes, really.
Various civilizations connected how you ate and how healthy you felt, but a lot depended on how they defined "health". For many, foods were part of a huge range of things that interacted with mysterious processes in the body, and could do horrible damage if not eaten in precise ways or by the correct class of people. It wasn't just eat veggies, get glowing skin; you could use food to shift the level of blood in your body, make you happier, or stave off deadly sins. Helpful.
Also, it might give you some comfort to know that no matter how much you hate salad, medieval cooks hated it more.
1. That Women Needed To Be Dried Out By Their Diet
The authors who followed the ancient Greek Hippocratic model of medicine had some, er, interesting ideas about women — specifically, that they had far too much blood. Yep. Basically, the idea was that women were prone to having too much blood running around in their bodies (which overflowed during menstruation), and that every individual lady's diet should specifically address this to make sure she could operate properly. Otherwise, apparently, the excessive blood would flood our brains and make us all sexually licentious or something.
To "dry out" the body, diets were supposed to be filled with foods with particular spices, boiled meat instead of moistened roasted joints, and wine that had been watered down. It was thought that too much food also caused far too much blood, and if something wasn't done to prevent the enormous gushes of blood in a young woman's body, she'd develop a "Green and Weasel Color" and have to be married to save her health.
Modern Day Equivalent: Detoxing
2. That Where You Gained Weight Depended On Your Humors
The ancient Greeks had an excellent explanation for the fact that you gain weight primarily on your stomach or thighs or wherever: it all depended on your balance of humors. Humoral theory was the cornerstone of a lot of Greek medicine, even though it sounds completely bonkers today: everybody had their own individual balance of the four humors — black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm — and whichever one dominated determined your weight gain pattern, appetite, and the depths of your personality. Quite a comprehensive system, really.
If you were dominated by yellow bile, you gulped down a lot of food rapidly, liked strong tastes and alcohol, and were basically a fun person to have around on a Saturday night; plus you were thought to gain weight on your arms and upper body. If black bile was in charge, though, you were melancholy by nature, often had a poor appetite, and would tend to thickening around the midriff in later life. All these arrangements had good or bad sides, but it's tricky to find sources that say weight gain was a bad or unhealthy thing for anybody per se.
You could get imbalanced, though, in which case diet could come to your rescue; each humor had a temperature attached, and foods could counterbalance it. Melancholics could "warm" themselves with roasted foods, while hot-tempered people cooled themselves off with fish, goat or nuts.
Modern Day Equivalent: The Blood Type Diet
3. That Raw Fruits & Veggies Had To Be Cooked
The Boke of Kervynge (book of carving) was a medieval cookbook and advice text published in 1500, to help young cooks in fancy medieval households figure out what they were doing. And reading it gives us an insight into some of the more hilarious beliefs about "healthy" eating in the 16th century, from deadly salads to lethal strawberries. Among the admonitions is the terrifying warning, "Beware of green sallettes and rawe fruytes for they wyll make your soverayne seke. [Beware of green salads and raw fruits, for they will make your master sick.]" Yep: uncooked greenery or fruit of any kind was going to cause havoc and accidentally kill your boss. Far cry from today's green raw smoothies.
This worry about uncooked anything was likely a hangover from the ancient Greeks, who often seemed to think that raw fruits were dangerously unsuitable for anything except medicine; the physician Galen used to reserve raw pears for treating constipation. It may have also been sensible, though, as improperly stored fruit and vegtables can be a serious source of food poisoning. Other things that a medieval cook should never, ever serve his boss, for fear of lethal consequences, included cream, the breasts of cranes, strawberries, and "hurtelberyes," likely the term for blueberries or bilberries. Peacock, though? Totally fine.
Modern Day Equivalent: Gluten Phobias
4. That Gluttony Led To Lechery, Sloth, And Envy
This is a classic bit of medieval Christian teaching, and is found in a lot of texts from the period. Gluttony, you've got to remember, wasn't seen as negative because it endangered the health; it was a mortal sin, one of the Big Seven. And it was also something of a "gateway sin". Once you started down the road of too much sensual pleasure from cake, you were likely going to end up riddled with all the other sins as well.
The idea was basically that too rich and enjoyable a diet risked getting far too much pleasure from worldly things. And that particularly applied to ladies. Gluttony was explicitly tied to women because of the Original Sin, which is all about a woman eating what she's not supposed to and causing havoc in the process. It's laid out pretty explicitly in a guide for women retreating to be religious hermits: "Lechery comes from gluttony and from enjoyment of the flesh, for as St. Gregory says, "Food and drink wrongly (lit., beyond [what is] right) give birth to three broods: frivolous words, frivolous deeds, and lechery's desire". So you had to keep a tight reign on your diet, or before you knew it you'd be a lazy, over-sexual asshole. I mean, as far as reasons not to eat that pie go, it's a pretty convincing one.
Modern Day Equivalent: Juice Cleansing
5. That Foods Had To Be Eaten In A Certain Order So They Wouldn't Putrefy The Brain
As a dedicated fruit-eater at all times of the day and night, this one's definitely my favorite. The courts of the Renaissance, it turns out, had some very specific rules about the dangers of food, not only about how it should be cooked but in what order it should be consumed. And we get an idea of the terror about raw fruit again when you discover that innocently eating fruit after a nice meal was thought to poison the brain.
There were a lot of rules about "healthy" eating in the Renaissance, and plenty of guides to lay them out; there was an entire genre of books admonishing people that they weren't eating right. (Sounds familiar.) The recommendations got pretty labyrinthine, too. You weren't supposed to mix too many food types at once, things were supposed to be separated out into distinct courses, and you should never, never finish a meal with raw fruit, according to David Gentilcore's Food And Health In Early Modern Europe . Apparently the belief was that it would "float on top of the contents of the stomach and eventually putrefy, sending noxious vapours into the brain and disrupt the entire bodily system."
That wasn't completely agreed upon, though. One French physician, records the medieval historian Jean-Louis Flandrin, thought that some fruits, like apples, pears, quinces and dates, "must be eaten at the end of the meal, for they had the virtue of stopping the food from going back up toward the mouth and, on the opposite, of pushing it down toward the outlet, in the matter of a wine press." Personally the dangers of putrefaction would likely put me off that theory, thanks.
Modern Day Equivalent: Orthorexic Clean Eating
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